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Okra a top ‘fruit’ for summer gardens

By Stephanie Williams Dean

Bless Your Spoon

 

Not everyone shares an enthusiasm for okra.

Or so I once believed.

I could be wrong based on the number of people who lined up to purchase fresh okra at last week’s downtown farmer’s market.

Technically, okra’s a fruit. In the Deep South, the fruit’s often used as a thickener by Creoles and Cajuns for their gumbos. The fresh pods add a unique acidic flavor to soups and stews. Okra’s pickled or fried by almost everyone else.

Okra has a long history and was cultivated by ancient Sumerians and used extensively by Egyptians to make Papyrus. Also, okra was a favorite of African jungle tribes. It’s said that the fruit reached America with the slaves – and was called gombo. Since the slaves traveled naked, the slaves hid gombo seeds in their ears.

My favorite way to enjoy okra is pickled with dill and served as a garnish when building a bloody Mary bar at home for guests.

But here’s the bottom line. Even if you’re not a fan of okra, try one of the recipes, you might learn to love it. Lots of us do – so you’ll have to get in line.

CHICKEN & OKRA GUMBO

Young 5 lb. whole chicken

2 quarts of water

2 chopped onions

1 bay leaf

2 whole cloves

1 tsp. thyme

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. red pepper

1 Tbsp. or more cornstarch

2 cups cooked okra

White rice

In a deep saucepan, place chicken. Water should cover the chicken. Add onion and bay leaf and cloves in a cloth bag. Simmer for 1 hour or longer until chicken is tender.  Remove chicken and bag with bay leaf and cloves. Pull chicken from the bone. Season the broth with thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Add cornstarch to thicken. When thickened, stir in chicken and cooked okra. Serve over lots of boiled rice!

SOUTHERN FRIED OKRA

4 cups washed, sliced ½-inch okra

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup yellow cornmeal

½ tsp. salt

2 cups vegetable oil

Salt to taste

In a bowl, mix flour, cornmeal, and salt. Toss damp okra in the mixture until each piece is well coated. In an iron skillet, heat oil until hot but not smoking. Fry okra one layer deep on medium-high for 15 minutes or until brown. Reduce heat to medium if oil begins to burn. Drain well on paper towels and salt to taste. You might need to change the towels as you fry. To reheat and crisp, place on baking sheet and heat in a 400-degree oven for 5 minutes.

STEAMED OKRA

WITH WARM VINAIGRETTE

1 pound of okra

Remove tops and bottoms of okra. Steam until fork tender or 5 minutes. Cool, but do not refrigerate. Serve at room temperature with a hot fresh tomato vinaigrette over the okra.

TOMATO VINAIGRETTE

5 Tbsp. olive oil

5 chopped shallots

3 chopped garlic cloves

1 ½ cup peeled, seeded, chopped tomatoes

5 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 cup white wine

4 Tbsp. capers

¼ tsp. salt

Freshly ground black pepper

This vinaigrette is great over any vegetable. In a skillet, heat oil. Cook shallots until tender. Add garlic and tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes. Add vinegar, wine, salt, and pepper. Simmer 20 minutes until sauce is reduced and thickened. Stir in capers. Salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle hot vinaigrette over okra.

OKRA CORNCAKES

2 beaten eggs

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup cornmeal

1 tsp. baking powder

2 cups thinly sliced fresh okra

½  cup chopped tomatoes

1 cup corn

½ cup chopped onion

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp freshly grated black pepper

Oil for frying

In a bowl, beat eggs. Add flour, cornmeal, and baking powder. In another bowl, combine okra, tomatoes, corn, and onion. Add vegetables to egg mixture and mix well. In a skillet, pour 1 inch of oil. Heat until hot but not smoking. Drop batter by spoonfuls into hot oil to form a patty. Salt and pepper. Fry until golden. Turn once and repeat. Drain well on paper towels.

DILLY OKRA

6 ½ lbs. tender okra

1-quart water

2 quarts vinegar

1 cup salt

Garlic cloves

8 dill sprigs

8 small hot peppers

In a saucepan, combine water, vinegar, and salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Cool. Pack sterilized jars with okra pods. Add a few garlic cloves, a sprig of dill, and hot pepper to each pint jar.  Seal and let stand for 6 weeks before opening. Yields 8 pints.